Week #49 Departure: a short story
by SJ Finn
Published in Review of Australian Fiction where the best of Australian fiction comes into your inbox at the rate of one a week for a dollar a week, Departure by Kim Scott is a story told in plain language that offers the best of everything that’s not said in order that it say so much. The un-story of Tilly is precisely what tells us of her predicament: the gap between two cultures that she is leaping, the curiosity and care (just a little bit voyeuristic) of those that see her journey as tricky, the parting suggestion that hers could be a departure of sinister outcome.
Everything is underscored by a lacking to convey fullness, by a physical to create feeling, by a calm to create tension. Like a hollow aching or a creeping anxiety the reader is put into a hold while the scene shimmers. We are with Tilly in her self-consciousness, in her observance, in her private teenage headspace. But we are also looking at her from a distance, knowing we can’t intervene.
Kim Scott is a writer known for layered and complex language. The control he shows in Departure, the clarity and slow, tense pace makes this story as tender as fresh bruises.
Central Bus Station was built upon the principle of a large shed and, except for the large windows on one wall, barely disguised as such. Inside, a vast grey plain of concrete was enlivened not only by the dancing dust motes and large, sparkling rectangles of sunlight on the floor, but also by firmly anchored patterns of bright plastic chairs. A schoolgirl entered the building and, veering widely around the chairs, paused at a vending machine. The machine accepted her money, gave nothing in return.
The woman behind a pane of glass marked Enquiries looked away. She touched her stiff hair, pursed her bright lips and tapped the keyboard before her. The skin at her cheekbones seemed to be flaking away.
A would-be passenger, clutching at baggage and clothing, stumbled into the building as if pushed. Hissing, the doors closed. Outside, a hot wind continued to moan and twist in the angles of the building. The schoolgirl, Tilly, perched at the very corner of one platoon of chairs and bent her head to her electronic device. Voices in her skull competed for her attention; she did not hear the wind, the doors; had not even heard her own footsteps.
Again the doors parted and an old woman stood between them, holding herself against the buffeting wind and beckoning two small children to join her.
The woman was perhaps seventy years old, the children of primary school age. Each child—a boy and a girl—had a bright backpack. The woman wore loose, colourful layers of clothing and her abundant hair was tied back, silver curls spilling against her skin. She looked around the sunlit departure room and saw Tilly, in pleated private school uniform and hat. Tilly pulled her sleeves down past her wrists, and wrapped her legs around one another so tightly that they might have been woven together and the one loose shoelace the only thing awry. Her eyes were fixed to her phone, and tiny speakers pressed into her ears. Her fingers danced, and her lips moved as she breathed some internal voice.
The Enquiries woman shuffled towards the glass doors, a hand flicking at the wrist to gesture that the old woman and children must move away from the doorway. A bus pulled up and, as it lowered itself with a subdued hiss, its door sighed open. Elderly passengers stepped cautiously onto the kerb and, seasoned campaigners, looked around for alternatives to the glossy woman and sliding glass doors that confronted them.
A little group of bodies had attached itself to the belly of the bus, and watched the beast being gutted. Another group began to gather to see it stuffed again.
Tilly turned at a touch and, skilled by habit, unstoppered her ears. Dangling the tiny speakers in one hand, she put her head to one side, and politely performed: Yes, what do you want?
‘Where you from, bub?’ asked the silver-haired woman, keeping an eye on the children’s ascension into the bus.
‘Here,’ said Tilly. ‘From my mother’s belly.’ Faltered. ‘Well, I used to live in Coolbellup, in Albany for a bit. I’m at boarding school.’
The school’s name was emblazoned across her small frame: on the round straw hat, the tie, at one breast. Her shoes were sensible shoes, neatly polished; her socks smooth, and folded at the ankle.
‘I’m Gloria,’ the woman said. ‘Gloria Winnery.’ Her eyes moved to the windows of the bus. Tilly wanted to step around her but could not.
‘Who’s your family then?’
‘Oh, my mum is white.’ It was dismissive. ‘She brought me up. My dad is Jim Coleman.’
‘Oh, you that Wirlomin mob?’
‘See much of your dad?’
Tilly gave a little snort. ‘Not really. I only met him early this year.’
The silver haired woman’s attention moved to the children, who had claimed their seats and were now pressing against the glass. Tilly danced around the coloured shawls, the silver hair and waving arm. ‘See ya,’ she said from the steps of the bus.
‘Where you headed, bub?’ Gloria called after her.
From beside the driver, Tilly called, ‘Ravensnest,’ and kept moving.
Seated near the back, unpacking phone and ear-buds, Tilly allowed Gloria a little wave. The old woman was clutching her hands to her chest, as if distressed.
Tilly put her bag on the seat between herself and the aisle. She leaned against her reflection; beyond that was the rush and flow, the spikey, shape-shifting world of traffic lights, of shouting signs, of corners of glass and brick and steel, of vehicles merging and separating; people were fragments and shadows in tilted panes of glass and scattered shards of sunlight. Tilly’s fingers gripped each shirt cuff; her fingernails were gnawed to the quick. Smoothly, with the practiced ease of a nervous reflex, those raw fingertips found the text from her Uncle Ryan:
Get the Esperance bus from the station to Lake Grace. Someone will pick you up there for the camp.
She’d replied, ‘Ok,’ although she’d never met Ryan. Her dad’s cousin, Noongar-way. By generation from a common ancestor, as legislation speaks it.
Tilly wondered why the old woman had seemed so concerned. One of the children at the front of the bus turned, waved to Tilly. Was the child concerned about her too?
She caught the driver’s glance in his rear-view mirror. Closed her eyes.
Already, several of the passengers had turned to look at her, some more than once. In some cases they had gone to some trouble to do so, and smiled reassuringly. Tilly did not feel comforted. Her counsellor had advised she was inclined to paranoia: to see hurt where there was none. Trust yourself. Love yourself. Be grateful.
She administered to her telephone.
Her reflection there, too.
Outside the bus, unnoticed by Tilly, was clear evidence they’d left the city. White lines stuttered along the bitumen and Christmas trees trumpeted orange blossoms from fence corners and road edges. The many masts of a forest of some other tree, tall and straight, sailed by. For a time the bus sliced through undulating, bright yellow rectangles that were irregularly hemmed by fences, only otherwise interrupted by a thin line or threatened stand of shabby trees crowning a slope. Vast expanses of bright yellow flowers rippled with the wind rolling across them.
Tilly was so attentive to her screen you would not think she realised two old women were talking about her. Each turned their head to look, turned away again. Their skulls leaned to one another. Tilly pulled her wrists deep into her shirtsleeves. Sipped at a water bottle.
‘Pulling over for a toilet break.’ The driver’s amplified voice startled her. ‘Back on the bus in 15.’ He made a performance of looking at his watch and named a time. ‘Grab a snack if needs be. We’ll pull up again around lunchtime.’ He rose to his feet, singing, and the passengers, save those few laughing and singing with him, went among the billboards and bowsers, headed for bright shelves and cellophane.
It wasn’t one of those new roadhouses, in which everything is integrated. Vehicles, except those refuelling, parked haphazardly at a distance from the bowsers. There was a little copse of peppermint trees; green, mowed grass; and a path to the toilet block. From behind a tall fence, two lamas stared at Tilly with impertinent expressions. A sign:
You can feed the llamas!!
Feed $1 per bag in shop.
Another on the toilet wall:
These ARE NOT public toilets.
They are privately run.
Please do the Right Thing!
If you need to use our toilets please use the shop also.
Inside the door, large above the basin, in strong red letters:
NOT DRINKING WATER.
Tilly went into the shop. With a twinge of anxiety, she passed her fellow passengers going the other way, back to the bus. She grabbed a bottle, handed the man some money. Checking the change as she left and realising she’d been short-changed, Tilly turned around within the doorway. The shopkeeper was smirking; it seemed the skin of his face might split. He teetered toward her with a curling index finger.
Tilly turned her back on him.
Back on the bus, Tilly pulled a bright plastic lunchbox from her backpack. Gave it prime place among her luggage.
Trees closed in each side of the road, then were flung back and again and reduced to scattered clumps, or a thin fringe running beside road or fence and the expanses of bright yellow. ‘Canola,’ she heard someone say, though not addressing her; people looked away at her glance. The undulating yellow was a backdrop, a blanket, something you might fall back upon. Be helpless and pinned down, held there and hurt by some greedy twisted fucker.
Smothered under this sky.
Tilly pressed her knees tightly together, folded her arms very tight.
One of the women across from her held out a plastic container of sandwiches. ‘We’ve made ourselves too much, love. Help yourself.’
‘Oh no. Thank you very much, but I’m full, really.’
The old woman smiled, but seemed disappointed. Before she could withdraw Tilly seized and displayed her own open lunchbox. ‘Something sweet to finish off?’ The plastic box was brimming with brightly iced cupcakes. ‘I baked them for the trip.’
The women’s faces creased and folded, crumpled with pleasure. They struggled to rise from their seats. Two pair of little old hands reached toward Tilly, fingers trembling.
‘Baked them yourself you say?’
‘Yep, got up early especially. Ate too many already, myself’
‘Mmm, taste even better than they look.’
‘Aren’t you the clever girl then?’
Tilly closed the lunchbox when they’d had their fill, and clamped herself back into the music.
Road signs held up words and made them strange. She realised they were not from any song or book or film she knew: Wagin, Narrogin, Kojonup, Katanning… Wangelanginy Creek: a place, it might be said, where all the voices are together speaking and where perhaps, beyond the roaring tunnel of glass and metal that held our Tilly, there did indeed remain some innocently babbling brook, some safe and sheltered course with its own momentum continuing.
Tilly removed her tie, and curled it in the hollow of her upturned hat.
At the next stop, the driver—stretching and scratching himself as Tilly stepped from the bus—asked, ‘Where you getting off again, love?’
‘No. Ravensnest, or Hopetown.’
A passenger glanced quickly at her, then away again. A woman on her way to her car turned her head at the name and two women leaning against a car watched the bus leave.
Tilly was wrapping herself in her playlist, her photos, all her friends and the world she wanted kept close:
You lubbly sing
Yey party bitches
Thas rite niggas u 2 blue.
She didn’t notice the paddocks fade to a dry, spikey no-colour, or the foliage on the trees move to the end of reaching limbs and strips of bark curve back toward the earth.
Tilly took the lunchbox from her bag, looked at the cakes for a while. She snapped the lid shut, put the box properly away. Sipped water.
On the long scar of bitumen ahead, a small murder of crows prepared to have their feathers ruffled. A couple took to their wings reluctantly, a few hopped away from the furred carcass as the bus buffeted them. Further ahead, a bloated kangaroo thrust its limbs skywards.
Tilly, bent to her small screen, did not note the shadows lengthening, or the vegetation changing. Before the manicured gardens of her new private school she had known only weedy backyards, suburban streets and sand. Outside, the mallee bristled its spikes and, as the bus blustered past, thrashed its limbs so that the leaves shivered with applause.
Despite the fine soil lifting in the wind, shadows remained etched in the earth; shadows of trees and fence posts, of clods of ploughed earth, and of a bull ants defiantly gripping the earth at the road’s edge.
A thin stand of towering trees closed above the bus as it tore along the bitumen, and in that brief tunnel of filtered light the trunks and limbs referenced the barely sun-kissed flesh of most of those in the bus; a reminder of their own sheltered, intimate parts and of Tilly’s secret skin too.
Dark, red gum oozed from old wounds on the scarred trees; dark fluids seeped and coagulated.
The bus shot between two final, paired trees as if through a gate. Or so Tilly might have thought, had she seen.
Tilly was among her new school acquaintances, their fashion and their idols, their boyfriends and bands, their film and gathering energy. Tilly had no wish to see the clefts and limbs, nor the gateway of two trees, nor that eagle hovering far above. She wanted no rattling leaves, no shivering applause. Would see nothing that was not also elsewhere.
One side of the road was forest reserve, mostly what’s called jam tree. Small, erect trees stood shoulder to shoulder like a sullen crowd, dull with dust. The other side of the road was bare earth, a haze of soil hanging just above the surface. Sand was heaped at the base of fence posts. Clouds moved across the bare sky, shape-shifting slowly.
Tilly raised her head. Saw the glass screen beside her. A dead snake on the bitumen. More crows. A shallow pool by the road held a patch of blue sky that rippled. The bus swerved a little.
‘Lake Grace coming up. One passenger getting off here, cup of tea and toilet in another hour if everyone can hold until then please.’ It wasn’t a question.
Tilly read the speed signs. Saw a jeep, recently polished and ostentatiously parked across the entrance of a driveway. Three metal cut-outs of a Poppy flower leaned in its open cab. The name of the town on another sign. The same colourful metal poppies again, each the height of a person, standing around the fence of the preschool.
Lest we forget.
The Great War.
Farm equipment: For Sale. A pub. Supermarket. Curly Wigs Hair Salon. Eatitup Café. Guns Safes Steel.
The bus pulled over at a roadhouse on the other edge of town.
‘Got someone to meet you, love?’
But there was no car waiting at the roadhouse.
Faces in the windows of the bus turned to her, for a moment like a school of fish. All eyes on Tilly, on her backpack and her little cylindrical case. Was it a ukulele? Violin?
‘Tell you what, love, have a word with the roadhouse. You got money? You can wait in there, at a table. He won’t mind if you just sit.’
Not fifty metres away, the proprietor held open the door. He was a big man; Tilly would need to press against him to get through the door. His shirt tight against his bulging belly; skin like damp beach sand; strands of dark hair pressed against his skull.
Then there was the sound of another engine, of tyres flicking small stones. The school of faces in the bus windows turned again, lured by glass and sunlight-edged chrome. A dented and dusty 4WD utility pulled up parallel to the bus, facing the other direction. The utility’s tray cover was torn, and a thin cord dangled by a broken tail-light. Its motor coughed and grumbled. The girl stood in the space between the two vehicles. The bus driver looked down the tunnel of his open doorway. The faces in the bus floated this way, that, each not seeming to stare.
The ute’s passenger window opened slowly. Two men inside. Twins? Of Aboriginal appearance. Approximately 30–40 years old. Unshaven. Passenger appeared to be drinking, your grace.
‘Tilly?’ the passenger said. Gave a small belch.
‘Ryan… Your Uncle Ryan said give you a lift.’
The bus throbbed, waiting.
That girl in school uniform, no tie or hat; socks down, her skirt surely too short for school rules. She flounced from the bus, bounced into the back seat of the dual-cab. Kept her backpack and musical instrument with her, not in the tray.
‘Yeah, plen’y room in the cab, Tilly. You don’t want your guitar-thing and bag in the back. Blood and all sorts of shit there. ’
They accelerated away before the bus door had closed.
The roadhouse manager, still with one hand on the open door, raised the other in a wave of departure and the car horn squawked a reply. The man in the doorway looked at the bus, and gave what some of the passengers later called a gap-toothed leer.
The bus rolled away. The roadhouse door closed.